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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

The Elusive God Particle

Feverish headlines filled the Internet this past winter with rumors that the Higgs boson may have been sighted. Fueled by leaked information and pure speculation, it was reported that the elusive subatomic particle that is key to physicists’ view of the world, might soon be discovered at CERN, the particle accelerator located near Geneva, Switzerland.

But in mid-December, the scientists officially summed up their efforts by reporting that they couldn’t yet say with any certainty of proof, though they may have caught a glimpse.

“It is just a whiff right now,” says Vivek Sharma, professor of physics and leader of the Higgs search using the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of two detectors deployed in the hunt. “What we are seeing could be random fluctuations. But if it is real, it should become a fragrance that will appeal to everyone very soon.”

The Higgs boson is the last missing piece of the standard model of particle physics, which explains the forces of nature in terms of subatomic particles and the ways they interact. In this scheme, particles gain mass by interacting with the Higgs boson. Without it, all particles would fly around at the speed of light like photons, which have no mass, unable to join together to form atoms, molecules, minerals or life.

What’s tantalizing about the results so far is that two independent teams, working with separate detectors in different places along CERN’s 27-kilometer tunnel, have both seen similar hints of what may be the Higgs. Neither team has noted enough observations to claim a discovery. Both teams, however, have seen too many events that could be traces of a Higgs boson to rule out its existence without more data. And they hope to have that data soon.

The machine started humming again in April, and operators have agreed to ramp up the power this year to triple the number of collisions. Follow the search at: ucsd.tv/higgs

—Susan Brown